15 Oct 2013

Too Much TV Can Send You Cockney, Say Linguists

You might think that the Glaswegian and Cockney accents are so far apart that any worthwhile communication would require a team of translators, but recent developments have shown that the two brogues are more similar than you think.

Research from the University of Leicester suggests that far from cocking a snoot at the Sassenach vernacular, Scottish viewers of the London-based soap EastEnders are actually subconsciously modifying their dialect to emulate certain Cockney speech patterns.

The study, published in the American journal Language, shows that some Glaswegians have picked up the typically Estuary English habit of replacing their TH with F in words like “think” and “tooth”.

And rather than allowing that ‘moose to run loose aboot the hoose’, words like “milk” and “people” are having their “I” sound replaced with the vowel sound found in “good”.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is the first to prove a direct link between active engagement in television and language change.

But it’s not enough to just ‘plonk’ yourself in front of ‘the box’; for speech to be altered the viewer has to tune in to the show regularly and really ‘live it’. The experts say that the process only occurs when the viewer is emotionally attached to the characters.

However, an emotional connection to a particular television programme is far down the list of major influences on accents, so viewers can take solace in the fact that too much Made In Chelsea will not turn you into an instant Sloane Ranger, and fans of Neighbours won’t be throwing in quizzical inflections at the ends of their sentences – known as high rising terminals – any time soon.

The researchers, who worked with linguists at the University of Glasgow on the study, said factors such as social interaction between peers, are much more likely to effect an accent change.

Professor Barrie Gunter, of the University of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication, said: “The findings are interesting because they provide evidence about the role that television could play in promoting the migration of regional dialects or speech patterns from one location to another.”

He said it has been known for some time that incomers into a geographical location can influence accents around them. And if enough people with the same accent inhabit one area, alien speech patterns can become ingrained in the local speech vernacular.

“Although the mass media have previously been referred to anecdotally as playing a part in this process, this research has provided more systematic, scientific evidence for this effect,” he adds.

“Thus, the researchers here asked whether the exposure of children in Glasgow to a soap opera such as EastEnders would result in some of the east end of London forms of speech being adopted locally.

“The research provided some evidence that this mediated influence on speech had occurred, most especially for children who were most closely attached to the programme and also after controlling for possible effects of meeting people from London.”

Jane Stuart-Smith, professor of phonetics at the University of Glasgow and lead researcher on the project, said: “We don’t properly understand the mechanisms behind these changes, but we do see that the impact of the media is weaker than that of actual social interaction.”

“We need many more studies of this kind in order to appreciate properly the influence of television and other popular media on language change.”


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